Silicon Valley: Jelly in the Jam

11 thoughts on “Silicon Valley: Jelly in the Jam”

  1. With developments like the last one (where is it?) I think it might just take some time, or a few more similar developments right next to it, to make it work. You need a certain volume of people to sustain enough variety in a metropolitan area where there are lots of choices.

    Or perhaps it just needs a little time. There’s a mixed-use development near me where the commercial part (first floor of some of the townhouses) was nearly empty for years. For a long time I blamed poor design – a combination of ADA rules and the insistence on each townhouse being separate mean about 1/3 of every already-small first floor was consumed by an ADA-compliant bathroom. But lately it’s picked up quite a bit. It helps that it’s on a major commercial strip, but a transit-adjacent development might get a similar boost from the train station.

    1. Curt – The last development in the post was in the town of South San Francisco about three inches away from the boarder of Colma. I agree that over time and with more infill development it could (I repeat, “could”) flesh out into a more viable walkable neighborhood. But if you look at what already exists in the area, a giant cemetery, a whole lot of existing single family home subdivisions, major highways… I just don’t see any of those things changing any time soon. And when BART (the regional rail system) invests heavily in an entire block of multi-story parking it’s clear that there are major institutional limits to what can be done. Three or four more of these transit oriented complexes huddled together might make the neighborhood slightly more viable as a third tier option for people who can’t afford a real walkable place like San Francisco or a proper detached suburban home. Big whoopee.

  2. Great post as usual. When I first saw the picture, I thought it was a picture of downtown Gilroy (South Santa Clara County). It is very similar, but we probably don’t have the mix of stores or the occupancy levels that I assume San Carlos has. But, everything else that you wrote about your ideal city is here.

    Gilroy has a historic Main Street (El Camino Real) with buildings built side by side and to the sidewalk. Parking is relegated to the back of the buildings. Some of the new buildings built before the great recession lack the character that a downtown building should posses, but others have the necessary components and fit well into the downtown fabric Virtually all new buildings are mixed use and have second floor uses, primarily residential, but at the same time are not as large as some of the pictures in your post.

    Tree lined residential neighborhoods on a grid pattern surround downtown where you can find modest and larger historic houses. Prices are relatively affordable in Bay Area terms of around $500K, sometimes less. Most of Gilroy’s downtown businesses are independents and serve the local community rather than tourists that drive here for the outlet and big box shopping, wineries or the Gilroy Gardens park. Downtown is walkable and bikeable if you live in the first ring neighborhoods around downtown, but not so much if you live in the more auto-centric newer neighborhoods further out. You can catch VTA, Greyhound or Cal Train to San Jose or San Francisco from the transportation center downtown, although schedules are limited. If you have to drive, downtown San Jose is only a half hour away by car, as is Monterey. And yes, referring again to your post, we even have abundant farm land surrounding the city that is still in production and lots of open space filled with nature. It is a piece of undiscovered ‘heaven”. Downtown even hosts its own half acre demonstration garden operated by a local non-profit on land owned by the city.

    With all that Gilroy has to offer (excepting the commute), you would think that Downtown Gilroy and the surrounding neighborhoods would be more successful than they are. Could it be the level of commitment by the city planning or elected officials, a lack of a coherent strategy, aesthetics, demographics, reputation, income levels, or the fact that we have 18 or so unreinforced masonry buildings that have been empty for so long that there is a perception of non-viability both by investors and tenants. Not sure exactly what the problem is, but something is off kilter.

    How about a post about Downtown Gilroy’s Main Street and its surrounding neighborhoods sometime? I would skip the rest of the City since most new development is the same auto-centric shopping areas, streets and neighborhoods that are pretty much the same thing you would find in any other suburban city.

    1. Anonymous – I’m familiar with Gilroy. I agree that the historic downtown has the same good bones as the best Main Street towns along the peninsula. And the countryside all around Gilroy is magnificent. I have friends who were driven out of San Francisco by high rents who looked seriously at buying a lovely house in Gilroy. But at the end of the day they didn’t.

      Gilroy is an hour and a half from San Jose during the morning/evening rush with several nasty bottlenecks like the one between San Martin and Morgan Hill. Gilroy is three hours from San Francisco on a good day, and five on a bad day. Trains and buses take about the same time at peak hours, but then there’s the problem of the “last mile” in suburbia. How do you get from the station to the office since the office is almost never close to the station? Company shuttles suck up another half hour. It’s just not fun. The $500,000 price difference between identical homes in Gilroy vs. San Carlos reflects the price people are wiling to pay to live closer to work.

      I’ve talked with people who are in the business of setting up corporate campuses in new locations. I asked why places like Gilroy aren’t satellite centers for Bay Area companies. They explained that there are three levels. The top brass needs to be in a primo location like Marin, Woodside, or San Francisco. The computer geeks need to be in either a family-friendly place like Walnut Creek or Fremont, or young funky San Francisco. The lower level back office support stuff that should go to a place like Gilroy is actually sent to Arizona, Utah, or Nevada unless it goes straight to the Far East or Brazil. Gilroy simply doesn’t have a competitive advantage in the Bay Area.

      1. As a Bay Area native, Gilroy has pretty much always been synonymous with ‘farmland’ and ‘poor’ (i.e. an inland version of Watsonville) – while it’s technically in the Bay Area, it’s so distant from everything else that it feels like it isn’t. It’s separated by a whole lot of non-place along HWY101.

      2. That’s a good point. I’ve been asking why we aren’t building more Edge Cities of the type popular in the ’70s and ’80s. Orange County has the Irvine Ranch, the mother of all Edge Cities. But the Inland Empire and your beloved Lancaster do not seem to be developing them; people in those areas are still driving two hours to work. In the North, I suppose contrast Walnut Creek, an Edge City, with Manteca, a logical place for an Edge City that shows no signs of becoming one. You need to do a whole post on this. It’s the “dog that stopped barking”.

        1. Actually the Inland Empire has many large employment centers, just look at Google earth. But they are dominated largely by wairhousing and industry, with office space and other commercial use coming a distant secund. And they tend to not be that high density. Southern Calfornia’s Inland Empire remains on the whole a rather blue-collar region.

  3. ohnny, I think a lot of the problem with these new developments comes down to the scale of the buildings (and the parcels). When we look at really great urban environments, they have a range of buildings, of varying sizes, ages, styles, and uses on the same block. These larger redevelopments are monolithic in scale, use, and style… This is actually a problem diagnosed by Jane Jacobs back in the 60’s–worth another look at those chapters on cataclysmic change. I think suburban retrofit is going to depend on changing the fundamental units of failed urban design: shrinking block size, adding more cross streets, and subdividing parcels. I have hopes that the least cared for places may create opportunities for these more radical changes. I think you’re right that suburb and urb are really different places, not just different scales. Crossing from one to the other requires some really big changes. Successful places (bay area–where I grew up) don’t have an incentive to change what they are doing…

  4. Thanks – you’re one step ahead! Keep up the good work spotlighting the “in-between” places. Certainly more interesting than another article about parklets… Speaking of South City, more beige monster drive-in-urbanism is on the way for El Camino. Our depressing safeway (across from See’s) is getting razed and in it’s place apartments over retail with a few old-timey Bay windows thrown in: Straight out of the Archstone San Bruno playbook and an impossible surrounding pedestrian environment. Better than nothing?

  5. Your criticisms of the San Bruno & South San Francisco infill projects are spot on. I live very close to the SSF BART station and use it every weekday but often I drive in because walking along El Camino is so unpleasant.

    However, I think you’re not familiar with the area and missed some obvious things. South San Francisco has a very traditional downtown that’s been gentrifying, feeding off the changing demographics from the local Biotech industry. It’s at something of a tipping point and the city has major plans to add density downtown and all over the city, much to the chagrin of certain residents who want it to maintain the 1950s town they grew up in. For its part, San Bruno has a sad little downtown strip that’s arguably the worst on the Peninsula. However, they recently approved a measure to radically increase height and renovate the Downtown/Caltrain area.

    In other words, SSF and San Bruno aren’t nearly as wealthy as San Carlos but like most Peninsula towns they are very similar in form. It’s more a matter of the El Camino infill projects, which inevitably end up flawed because they’re on an auto corridor and the Downtown/Caltrain infill projects, which have good bones to build off of. Here’s some more context:

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